By all rights, Macanudo should have charmed the pants off of me. Its creator, the Argentinian artist known as Liniers, has an appealing, confident, warm, and rubbery art style that’s perfect for the sort of daily humor strip he’s creating. He continually attempts to play with the limited four-panel format – changing the shape of the panels, having strips that runs sideways and upside down, breaking the fourth wall, and in general subverting reader expectations. He shows an interest and appreciation for the history of the medium, and his considerable influences – George Herriman, Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz, Patrick McDonnell – are apparent but don’t overwhelm. What’s not to like?
And yet Macanudo largely left me cold. While there were moments I was won over by the strip’s sweetness and lighthearted play, too often I found myself wishing for a little more grit.
Rather than focus on one particular character or situation, Macanudo is instead a gag-driven strip, similar in some respects to The Far Side or Rhymes With Orange. For the bulk of the run, collected and translated into four volumes thus far by Enchanted Lion Books, various cipher-ish characters come and go in the service of a joke, observation, or just the odd non sequitur, and rarely make a second appearance.
There are recurring characters, however. There’s the young girl Henrietta and her talking pet cat Fellini, Z-25 the sensitive robot, a cow that explains movie cliches, a seemingly anonymous group of penguins, a tribe of gnomes with very tall, pointy hats and more. The author himself makes an appearance occasionally (drawn as a spectacled rabbit).
It’s in the fourth volume that Olga, the monstrous imaginary friend of a little boy named Martin, appears. With his blue, shaggy fur, asymmetrical eyes, and tiny askew party hat, Olga is a pretty comical figure and Liniers get a lot of mileage out him, mainly just by having the creature shout its name (instead of any other words) at every opportunity. One of the funniest sequences involves Olga trying its hand at making a comic strip with all the characters repeating “Olga” over and over again.
My favorite strips, however, involve the Mysterious Man, a shadowy figure with a snowman’s head, top hat and long, black cape. As befitting his nom de plume, very little is revealed about this character. He simply shows up, does something inexplicable (usually defying the laws of physics in the process), and exits until next time. It’s these strips that best seem to capture the level of whimsy and quirkiness that Liniers is shooting for.
Indeed, Macanudo is often filled with odd or absurd touches: two faces grow out a bodybuilder’s arm muscles and form a romantic relationship; a normal sized man boasts an impossibly tiny head; planets talk, dog-faced men become weightless and float into the sky, and various gnomes and penguins engage in all sorts of nonsensical activities. If Macanudo has any sort of goal, it’s to be the kind of strip where anything can happen, though (I would hasten to add) only if it’s cute or whimsical.
In fact, I’d say the biggest problem with Macanudo is that it’s overstuffed on whimsy. One of the recurring themes in the strip is that imagination is a wonderful thing and childhood is precious, a tired and banal motif if ever there was one. (That’s when he’s not going on about how our culture is too obsessed with fame and celebrity, which thankfully becomes less and less as the book goes on.) An aura of melancholy does occasionally suffuse the strip, most notably in the presence of the afore-mentioned robot, and Liniers does occasionally delve into the odd black joke, usually involving a sentient olive. But overall Liniers is far too taken with the sheer wonder of it all and the majesty of life on Earth and the power of fantasy and blah blah blah. The strip is just too gosh-darned nice.
It’s often too slight as well. Producing a daily strip can certainly be an arduous task, and kudos to Liniers on allowing the strip to just unfold without a joke or pointed remark. But there are strips here that feel far too much like rough drafts, as though Liniers just went with the first thought that came to him and didn’t try to work it into something a bit more imaginative. Again, this improves as the series goes on, but there are times where Macanudo doesn’t feel wacky or off-kilter or surreal but just kinda lame.
It makes sense that Enchanted Lion, a children’s publisher, is releasing Macanudo. I think this material is best appreciated by children, who can revel in its warm silliness without wishing for more substance. In fact, I passed an extra volume on to a co-worker who texted me later that evening to tell me how much her grade-school kids loved the strip. So maybe it’s not Macanudo after all. Maybe it’s just me. I’m OK with that.